Teacher Appreciation

March 7, 2010

Teacher Appreciation 2010

So what is it that we expect from our teachers? Lee Shulman a leader in the secular education community gives the following minimal list of expectations (quoted in Educational leadership Feb 2010 Vol 67 Number 5):

1. Cognitive understanding of how students learn.

2. Emotional sensitivity to relate to many students whose varied needs are not always evident.

3. Content knowledge from which to draw different ways to present a concept.

4. The ability to make teaching decisions quickly and to act on them

Sound easy? Not so much. And that is just the beginning. That is secular education.

Now let’s talk about Jewish education. Here at NSCI Goodman Center for Jewish Education our vision is clear: We are in the business of creating active involved committed Jews – Jews who will engage in life-long Jewish learning, who will continue to grow spiritually, seeking a relationship with God, and who will function Jewishly through their deeds, deeds of tzedakah, chesed and justice. Who are the role models that we put before our children in our pursuit of this vision? Our teachers. Our rabbis and cantor, of course, are included in our list of teachers, but please know that for most of our kids, it is the regular engagement with their classroom teacher that lights their way. They look to the teachers to see what it means to be an active, involved committed Jew in our community. So let us add these qualities to our growing list of attributes:

A Jewish teacher must be:

5. Dedicated to life long learning

6. Moving forward on an evolving spiritual journey

7. Actively doing Jewish things in this world, whether through Tikkun Olam or through other forms of worship.

Seven critical attributes for an effective Jewish teacher. All of them hard to come by and all of them reflected in our religious school faculty whom we honor here tonight.

Tomorrow when we read from the Torah we will read about a pivotal moment in the life of our greatest Jewish teacher, Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher. When Moses descends from Mt. Sinai after receiving the first ten commandments he finds the people in open rebellion, dancing around the Golden Calf and denying God. It is not Moses’ finest moment, as he breaks the tablets in anger at his rebellious students. (Perhaps this would be a good moment to add

8. Patience

to our growing list of teacher attributes) But in time Moses recovers from his anger and turns to God to advocate for his people, his students. He convinces God to give the people a second chance, and again goes up the mountain to receive a second set of commandments. And so we can add

9. Persistence

To our list.

In the end, Moses asks God for reassurance that God’s relationship with the People of Israel is still intact. He asks that God reveal Godself to Moses as a form of commitment to a renewed covenant between God and the Jewish people. “Show me, I pray, your glory” God , explaining that no one can truly see God’s face and live, offers to pass His goodness before Moses. Moses is positioned in a cleft in the rock and God passes before him. We have here a true moment of experiential learning. Moses the teacher is, in this moment, now Moses the student. Moses had asked to see God’s glory. What he sees is a cloud from which God proclaims God’s attributes:”merciful, gracious long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forming chesed, for generations” (There is more, but probably not attributes we would want to add to our teacher list.) The point is that here we see God as the teacher’s teacher, Moses’ teacher. God’s attributes become the standard by which Moses and by inference, all teachers, measure themselves. So let’s add them now to our list of expectations of a Jewish teacher:

10. merciful
11. gracious
12. long suffering
13. Abundant in goodness and truth
14, Forming Chesed (kindness or loyalty) for generations

We could keep going but I think you get the point. Our expectations of our teachers are enormous. And our teachers, more often than we know, exceed even these expectations. So tonight we are here to share Shabbat with the teachers who serve this community, and, in the name of our children and our synagogue to thank them for what is, far too often, a difficult, thankless but nevertheless a profoundly holy job. Thank you teachers.



November 6, 2009

I have been thinking about partnership lately.

November is the culminating month of the first phase of our Partners in Mitzvah (Shituf Mitzvah) Project. It is a project that grew out of a Community Foundation for Jewish Education seminar for Jewish Educators and lay leaders, and blossomed into a synagogue-wide partnership to address issues of hunger in the Chicago area. The Brotherhood and Sisterhood got involved by sponsoring a wonderful Shabbaton with Danny Siegel, Chai @ NSCI got involved with a series of Feed the Hungry events, and the school mobilized in a myriad of ways to create both learning opportunities and hands-on tzedakah opportunities.

None of it could have happened without the many partnerships that grew along with the project. Sixth graders who usually come to religious school only midweek gave up their Sunday sleep-in time to sell Mezuzahs to raise money to feed the hungry. Teenagers helped the family educator create a giant board game which younger students played on Mitzvah Day. Jody Weinberg, our Religious Education Board chairperson collaborated with Lynn Friend, our Individualized Instruction teacher and me to make a mural of students doing Mitzvahs, using the design made by our ninth graders last year. Chaverim parents designed a Tzedakah Birthday program.

All of this collaborating reminded me of how many of the truly moving Jewish moments in our school come from the simple act of partnership. A few examples I noticed just this week:
• A Machonik who volunteered to drive a student to school every week because the student’s parents were temporarily unable to drive.
• Another Machonik who came in extra hours to paint boxes for the upcoming 6th grade TAG program
• A teacher donating her time to teach her colleagues computer skills
• Religious Education Board mothers volunteering to organize the Consecration Shabbat dinner even when they had no one in the class and knew they would be unable to attend

This kind of generosity of time and spirit is what truly makes our school work. Behind it all is recognition that Jewish Education is a communal effort, and that every person has something to contribute. None of us can do it alone. And anyway, what would be the fun in that?

What Counts

October 22, 2009

Lech LechaTwo months into the school year, educational directors end up doing a lot of counting. We count students mostly. How many in each class, in each grade, in each session. We count days, counting down to the next big event (right now it is Consecration on November 6, and the K-2 Family Shabbat on that same date, followed soon after by the Partners in Mitzvah Shabbaton on November 20-22). And right about now we begin counting books and supplies. Are we short a Hebrew CD in Grade 4? Do we have enough min- Torahs for consecration? Last Shabbat in the Torah portion Noah was counting the animals two by two and I guess, and, let me tell you, I could relate!
My wonderful assistant educational director, Judy Weiss, got me thinking about a different kind of counting. In a recent Adult Bnai Mitzvah class, she told the story of being on the ski slopes in Colorado and seeing people walking among the skiers saying quietly :”Tenth for a Minyan? ” The non-Jewish skiers, or , sadly, the less educated Jewish skiers, ignored him. He was speaking a language they did not understand. But ten people quickly gathered on the slope and stood beside him as he proceeded to pray, and to say  kaddish for his father. These were the people who understood what it means to be counted in a minyan – to be among the ten Jewish adults needed , according to tradition,to support a Jewish mourner in saying Kaddish, the prayer that allows a mourner to praise God as he/she honors a parent or close relative who has died in the past year. Traditionally Judaism requires a minyan to say kaddish . This guarantees a community of support  for the mourner, even if the mourner is not among friends and relatives he/she is never alone.  The minyan concept also teaches the lesson that each of us counts, we each, as individual Jews, have an essential function in the life of the Jewish community. Every Jew who gathered that day on the ski slope to stand around this Jewish stranger understood the importance of simply being counted.

Two years ago, when the cantor and I led our teen trip to Israel, we had a similar experience. A young man approached me at the dinner table at our kibbutz guest house in the Galilee, and asked where our kids were from.  When I told him, he asked if we would be saying morning prayers together, because his wife needed a minyan to say Kaddish for her father.  One would think that in Israel this would not be a problem, but the Kibbutz was a secular one, and the guests at the  guest house  had been unresponsive.  Although we had not planned to say morning prayers on a weekday, I assured him that we would be happy to oblige.  When I approached the kids, I explained the problem, and told the that we only needed 6 more to make the minyan (The couple and the cantor and I   made up the other four).  Since it meant getting up a half hour earlier on an already very busy day, I would not require anyone to attend, but it would be a mitzvah if six of them could.  All 18 teenagers showed up on time to be counted in the minyan the next morning.  It was a beautiful service, not the least because every young person there appreciated , many for the first time, that their presence in this Jewish community was essential.  It is empowering for a teenager to realize that people really count on them. It is empowering to us all.

New Year and Holy Work

September 3, 2009

Elul is well on its way, and the first day of school is just around the corner.  It is the same every year.  Right about now I feel a deep longing to see the children filling the hallways and the classrooms –  stopping by to say hello, and looking impossibly older than they did in May when we said goodbye.  Can they really change so much in a few short months?  Their enthusiasm and hope for the new year is refreshing and contagious and , right now, with all the stress of preparng for the year to come, as well as, this year, also moving into our new offices, I feel I can really use the boost of energy they carry with them wherever they go.  I do love my students!

Over the summer I have been doing a lot of thinking about how we, as educators, express that love.  My teachers and I attended a wonderful workshop by Dr Zohar Raviv  (sponsored by the CFJE) who reminded us that the words of our students are as important to the health of the Jewish future as the words of  the great thinkers of the past.  Do we ever really help our students to appreciate this important truth? This year we will be focusing on highlighting our students’ work, with the help of modern technology (Wikis for each grade level, the school website, Facebook, etc.)  We must convey to them that not only their energy , but also their  voices matter.

This summer I also had the opportunity to study Psalm 23, not , as we usually see it, as a funerary psalm, but rather as a source for how we can serve our students best.  Using the shepherd (a metaphor for God) in the psalm as a model for school leadership, I created a list of challenges that the psalm poses to Jewish Educators.  (Thanks to Rabbi Janet Marder who originally taught me to apply this psalm as a guide to my rabbinic work).  The psalm is well known, but bears a second look:


Ten challenges to Jewish Educators from Psalm 23 

Psalm 23: A Psalm of David.


1 Adonai is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

 2Adonai makes me lie down in green pastures; 
       and leads me beside quiet waters,

 3 Adonai  restores my soul. 
       and guides me in paths of righteousness
       for Adonai’s name’s sake.

 4 Even though I walk
       through the valley of the shadow of death, [a]
       I will fear no evil,
       for you are with me;
       your rod and your staff,
       they comfort me.

 5 You prepare a table before me
       in the presence of my enemies.
       You anoint my head with oil;
       my cup overflows.

 6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
       all the days of my life,
       and I will dwell in the house of Adonai

 The Challenges: 

1. In what ways can we serve as shepherds for the children we work with? What sort of guidance and protection, security and nurturing can we provide?

2. What are the needs they have that can be met by our shepherding?

Can we provide an environment where we can teach them to relax and where they can feel supported and cared for? (lie down in green pastures)

3. What sources of comfort and refreshing sustenance (quiet waters) can we provide in our school?

4. How can we restore our students’ souls?  How can we enhance their spiritual life?

5. What are the paths of righteousness we an open for our students? How do we lead by example? Does our reputation (name) depend on their behavior?

6. How can we be there for our students when they face threats (illness, depression, anxiety, bullying, drugs)? Can the structure we provide strengthen them in adversity? Can we provide comfort in times of uncertainty and fear?

7. What can we do to strengthen them against the negative forces that they confront in their lives at home or in school? Can our school be a refuge?

8. How do we nurture a sense of appreciation and contentment with their lot (my cup overflows)?

9. How do we nourish a sense of security and belonging so that they see the Jewish community as a lifelong source of “goodness and love”?

10. How do we inspire our students to have an enduring intimate experience of God’s presence in their lives?

So, with these and all the other challenges, I suppose my work is cut out for me.  Clearly this is not a job for one person.  I invite all, parents, teachers, colleagues,students,  to join me in this holy work.



It’s All Good

June 5, 2009
Naso Wordle

Naso Wordle

NSCI Goodman Center for Jewish Education Report to the General Membership
June 4, 2009

A recent study undertaken by Mediamark Research & Intelligence (MRI) reveals the following: Of American kids age 6-11, 71.1% accessed the Internet in the past 30 days.
Of those:
· 83.4% did their Web surfing at home;
· 29.6% at school,
· 6.82% at bookstores and libraries.
· 81.2% reported accessing the web to play online games
· 86.8% of youths played a video game;
· 29.1% played a video game on a cell phone.
If you are a parent of a child in this age group these numbers will not surprise you. What may be more surprising is the extent to which the new technology is changing the way children learn.

From 1994 to 2000, the number of schools with internet access rose from about 35% to about 98% (Rosenberg, 2004). And that was nine years ago! It clear that computers now play a pervasive role in education and because of this, the relationship between computers, children and education must be reckoned with. Technology is a new reality of our children’s lives. We ignore it at our peril.

One way that computer technology can aid the education of children is through the thousands of libraries and information sources which are accessible online. There are also a plethora of specifically Jewish websites with information about everything from American Jewish History to holiday celebrations, from Holocaust studies to Torah commentary.

But accessing information is only one of many ways the students benefit from the new technology. We now have the resources that allow them to create videos and publish them instantly on the web, to cooperate on writing projects with students all over the world, and to access interactive learning games in just about any subject. They can record podcasts and create websites with simple technology available for free on the Internet. At the recent general membership meeting I showed a video of the school year made on a Flip camera , shot at different moments throughout the year. Some of the footage was shot by the students. This simple camera, easily usable by an elementary school aged child, can be attached directly to a computer for instant screening of the video. I also showed a copy of a “wordle.” A wordle is made online by inserting any text into the program , choosing your type and color, and generating a word cloud of most used words, in which the most frequently appearing words appear larger. My wordle was created by inserting the text of the first portion of this weeks Torah portion. You can see that this sort of technology offers exciting opportunities for a new kind of learning. Research has indicated that computer technology is especially useful in developing skills such as critical thinking, analysis, and scientific inquiry (Roschelle, Pea, Hoadley, Gordin & Means, 2000).

Our efforts to adapt North Shore Congregation Israel Goodman Center for Jewish Education to this new environment began with a comprehensive study of our technology needs by a team of expert consultants, which was undertaken in 2006. Since then we have gradually been implementing the suggestions of the authors of that report. First we brought wireless access to the Internet into our classrooms.. We purchased 10 school laptops and hired a part time media specialist to train teachers and keep up the research necessary to remain up to date on innovations in technology. We created protocols for using our equipment , and a system for making sure they are available for use by the widest number of students. In 2008 we applied for and received a grant from the Legacy Heritage Foundation to install 2 Smart Boards in our school. As part of the requirements of this grant we trained a cadre of teachers on the equipment, and have a team of teachers adapting lessons in all grades to Smart Board use. Last month the Legacy Heritage Foundation , in their bulletin, named North Shore Congregation Israel Goodman Center for Jewish Education “School fo the Month” in recognition of our having submitted a “large variety of engaging, interactive and well thought out lessons using Smart technology to its fullest”

Our use of technology in the school administration has also undergone some radical changes. With the hiring of our new Administrative Assistant, Jenya Li, we have both the skills and the resources to make our school administration paperless. This year we are doing registration online for the first time. While the goal of becoming paperless is a few years away, we have managed to greatly reduce our mailings and our parents are getting used to using the website for information about the school. We intend to continue this trend in the upcoming school year. In addition, we are planning a series of teacher workshops that will include intitiating a new Faculty Wiki on which to foster community among our faculty, and allow an open dialogue and sharing of resources. This technology will also enable our faculty to communicate more directly and immediately with parents about what is taking place in the classrooms.

There is much more that has happened in our school this past year. We continue to hold moving prayer services, and outstanding family education programs, under Patty Mason’s leadership. Our Individualized Instruction program, thanks to Lynn Firend and Rene Stern is a model of excellence in serving students with special needs. The URJ Chai curriculum , and our new Ninth Grade Israel Curriculum (for which we are grateful to Larry Goodman for funding fromm the Goodman Foundation) have brought new focus to our classroom learning. Our Ruach group produced another hit play at the end of the school year. Music and Art thrive. Retreats blossomed in the capable hands of Amanda Greene. Everywhere our teen Machoniks bring vitality and joy to our classrooms. What we have learned is that the best schools are those that are able to balance the old with the new – to maintain those aspects of the school that inspire and educate, and to embrace innovation wherever it can be proven to enhance our students’ experience. Tradition and innovation are not mutually exclusive. Pen and paper can co-exist with Google Docs – and it is all, as my father would say, good for the Jews!

Isn’t it Wonderful?

May 24, 2009

I learned from one of my teachers recently how easy it is to listen to Kol Yisrael, the Israel national radio network, on my computer. Since listening to the station is good both for my Hebrew and for my nostalgia, I have taken to listening to it regularly. There is a religious station, but I don’t often listen to that. I am more attracted to the secular Israel that I remember from my teen years. I find it on Reshet Gimel, which largely plays popular Israeli music, mostly vocal soloists. It is in the style of the music we used sing with our friends, if not the songs themselves. It is interspersed with enough news and ads to keep me on my linguistic toes.

Today I was struck by just how Jewish this secular culture is. I was only half listening (half cleaning my kitchen floor) when I heard an ad for Pirkei Avot (The Sayings of the Fathers), a collection of pithy sayings from the rabbis who wrote the Mishnah, dating back to the beginning of the first millennium. I only caught the tail end of the ad, so I am not sure exactly what was being sold but the ad ended with the words “if not now when” (perhaps the most famous quote from Pirkei Avot) used here to mean roughly “run out and buy it now! “ The ad was followed a few minutes later by an ad for the Taglit Birthright Program, the program that sends young Jewish adults, who have never been there, on their first trip to Israel. Then a popular love song came on that referenced God two or three times, as in “God only knows how much I love you” or the like. Only, of course, being a Hebrew song, the word was Elohim, and so carried an entirely different spiritual punch. Later another secular love song mentioned Sabbat in passing, and quoted a phrase from psalms.

One of the family stories my father likes to tell is about my grandfather’s experience in Israel in the early1950s. He was an ardent Zionist his whole life, and was one of those people who understood the fulfillment of the dream of 2000 years, the then new State of Israel, in a most visceral way. On his first visit to Israel, he was taking a walk one Shabbat and was solicited by a prostitute. He came home in a state of turmoil to tell the story. The family expected outrage. Instead he said to my father: “Isn’t it wonderful? In Israel even the prostitutes are Jewish!”

The prostitutes, the language, the news, the sports, the ads, the popular music – the successes and the failures- all are Jewish.  And now, through the grace of the Internet, we can be even more a part of it, no matter where we live. Isn’t it wonderful?

End of the Year

May 23, 2009

Last Sunday was the last day of religious school. Next Thursday will be Confirmation. In many ways it is one of my favorite times of the school year. (Paradoxically my other favorite time is the fall, when the High Holidays collide with the beginning of the school year.) Partly this is because I am a person who loves change (rare, I know). I love the way the transition from the school year into the summer throws everything suddenly into perspective. The students do amazing things. Take Grade Four for example. During the last week of school they led a Hebrew Maariv service for their parents. They sang the prayers, offering explanations and directions to the parents. They ended with Hatikvah. When you stop to think that they began the year barely able to read the letters, and that the third grade Sunday morning service is conducted largely in English, this is a truly remarkable achievement. Most of our fourth graders, and certainly most of their parents had no idea how far they had come until they found themselves leading the service with confidence last week. The small increments of progress often go unnoticed. But at the end of the year, in our culminating events, the progress is palpable

The fifth grade celebrates the end of the year with the fifth grade wedding. This is a different sort of culminating experience. Only the students who read the Sheva Brachot (The Seven Blessings) are demonstrating Hebrew skills. The big achievement of the fifth grade wedding is not so much acquired knowledge as creative community building. The wedding is a true class effort, from designing the ketubah to making the chuppah, from joining the band to choosing the parts; the students must work together as one big community. And again, the parents have an important role. They come with siblings, both older and younger, and with cameras. They kvel when their children walk down the aisle, and they laugh at the Rabbi’ jokes. Some of the moms cry, realizing perhaps that their children’s real wedding will come sooner than anyone can imagine.

Seventh Grade graduation incorporates both the mastery of the fourth grade service and the sense of community of the fifth grade wedding. In many ways it is a challenging year in our community, with the plethora of Bnai Mitzvah experiences, and the pressures of middle school. The temptation to give up on Jewish Education as soon as the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is over is intense, especially for families for whom Judaism is not central to their family life. The families who stick it out, who make the commitment to their Jewish futures, bring a feeling of hope and appreciation that can be felt in the writing of the students which they share from the bima, and in the creative offerings on display in Frank Memorial Hall. The work has a maturity that reflects the growth of these children into adolescence, and the growing realization that they are beginning to take responsibility for their own roles in the Jewish community.

The season ends for us on Shavuot with tenth grade confirmation. These are the students on the verge of adulthood. They are discovering their passion for Jewish life in the youth group, on retreats and Israel trips, and they are comfortable enough in their own skins now not worry about the judgment of their peers who have opted out of their Jewish education. These are the kids who are not afraid to say they love the synagogue, and want to be here. They are as comfortable on the Bima in the Large Sanctuary as they are in the Youth Lounge. Their enthusiasm for what they are doing reminds me of the enthusiasm that they all began with, way back in kindergarten, which sometimes gets so muffled along the way. These are the students from whom we expect great things.

What do all these events have in common? They all give our students and their parents an opportunity to step back from the routine of Hebrew and Religious School and rediscover why they are here in the first place. And for most of us, this discovery feels pretty good!

Walking With Israel

May 6, 2009

The first year I was at North Shore Congregation Israel, I got on a plane with my then 9 year old daughter and flew to Washington DC to take part in a national rally in support of Israel. Today, at 17, her memory of her first trip to D.C. is linked in her mind to the act of speaking out for Israel.

I recently had a conversation with a parent about the Walk With Israel, which takes place annually in the Chicago area, and for which we always close our religious school. This parent expressed doubt over the wisdom of walking with Israel, when he objects to so many of Israel’s political positions. “I support the idea of a Jewish State,” he said, “but I don’t think that is what the walk is about. I don’t want to be seen as supportive of Israel’s political agenda.”

I tried to explain that the idea of a Jewish state in a Jewish homeland is precisely what the Walk With Israel is about – that politicians come and go, but the Jewish State cannot ever be allowed to go. We can disagree about policy. We can disagree about politics. But the one thing we must all agree on is Israel’s right to exist. We cannot forget what the world was like for Jews before there was a Jewish state. We cannot let our disagreements about the details confuse us about our responsibility to be heard.

Every year we close our religious school on the day that our community sponsors the Walk With Israel. We don’t do this lightly. We understand that every moment matters in Jewish Education. We close the school for the same reason that I took my nine year old daughter to Washington D.C. for the day. We want our children to understand the centrality of Israel in contemporary Jewish experience. We want them to walk with Israel. We want them to remember that their parents cared enough to walk with them.

At our synagogue we have many ways and many opportunities to show our support for Israel. We take wonderful family trips to Israel. Our teens, who are being confirmed, have the unique opportunity to go on the Teen Israel Trip, which is heavily subsidized by the Louis P. and Saeree K Feidler Israel Scholarship fund. Many of our students participate in the S.K.I.P. program sponsored by Federation. And recently we have had the opportunity, through the generosity of Larry and Lillian Goodman to bring a new Modern Israel Curriculum into our high school. All of these deepen our connection to the Land of Israel and strengthen Ahavat Zion (Love of Zion) for our families. But they do not negate the value of walking together with other Jews, on a beautiful spring day, as a public statement of our belief that our survival as a people is inseparable from the survival of the State of Israel.

Jewish Numbers

April 28, 2009

Those of you who know me know that I am a liberal arts person all the way. I am at home with text study, visual arts, poetry, philosophy, but show me some numbers and my brain moves immediately to freeze mode. I have learned to cope over the years, with the help of Excel and experience, but give me the choice between teaching Torah and making a budget for the school and I will choose Torah every time. This preference seems a good fit for a rabbi, even a rabbi who administers a school. The humanities are the backbone of rabbinic work after all, and there are always good people to help with the budget.
So it may surprise you that there are, in fact Jewish numbers, and that numbers have an active role in Jewish life, especially this time of year. Let me demonstrate: Today the important Jewish numbers are five, sixty-one, nineteen, and hovering in the background, as it inevitably does, six million. This last number needs no comment. It will forever resonate in Jewish hearts. Last week, when we observed Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, it surfaced on our lips. Today, on Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day, it is the backdrop, the shadow of our joy. What about five? That is the Jewish date, the fifth of Iyar. Ours is a religion that dances to the rhythm of the lunar calendar, and, to really feel that rhythm we must be aware of the alternate calendar, which determines Jewish life. Sixty-one? Those are the years of Modern Israel’s existence. It is a number, which seems to me both ridiculously small (Such a young country!) and unbelievably large (How can Israel be sixty one, when it’s fortieth birthday happened just a heartbeat ago?) For those of my generation, Israel’s age mirrors our own, and as we age, we understand time and survival differently. The last time I visited Israel I couldn’t stop talking about the dramatic changes in the country since I lived there as a teenager, until I recognized the glazed look in the eyes of the teens in our group, and remembered my parents speaking to me exactly the same way in 1966. The perspective of middle age may bore our youth, but it does enhance both our sense of awe and our appreciation of the miracle of Modern Israel.
There is one number left in today’s Jewish count down: nineteen. Today is the nineteenth day of the Omer. Omer counting is a tradition that has been largely lost to Reform Judaism, but I think it is a tradition worth reclaiming. Since Shavuot does not have an actual date of its own in the Torah, but must fall 49 days after the first day of Passover, we are instructed to count the Omer, the 49 days between the two holidays, each with a blessing. An Omer was a biblical measure of grain, and presumably the Omer was once counted by setting aside a measure for each day, since the Israelite farmers would have been out in the fields between Passover and Shavuot, and needed some way to keep track of the days before the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem on Shavuot. So there is an agricultural note to the Omer period. There is also a mystical component. When I was a child I was taught that usually people count down to a significant event (How many days are left until the end of the school year?) but in Judaism we count up between Passover and Shavuot, ascending from slavery to the ultimate freedom achieved through the giving of Torah at Sinai. The Kabbalists have added additional meanings to the days by associating each day with a particular combination of God’s attributes. It is not an easy task to remember to count the Omer every day for 49 days, but it has its rewards. The simple act of counting and blessing each day changes how we experience that day.
Five, sixty-one, nineteen, Jewish numbers all. They weave together dreams and miracles, history and faith. Now those are numbers I can relate to!

Constructing Jewish Knowledge

March 29, 2009



Last week in the High School we began working on our Partners in Mitzvah (Shituf Mitzvah)- hunger project.  The idea is to engage the students in partnership with the broader synagogue community in a concerted effort to increase our social action activities in response to the current economic crisis.  Earlier this school year, our eighth graders volunteered at a food pantry as part of their eighth grade Mitzvah Corps.  They were shocked to realize that as the day went on, the pantry began to run out of food. People went away without the food they needed to feed their families.  We decided that we needed to do what we can to make sure that doesn’t happen again. So we embarked on the hunger project. Last week we brainstormed activities that the teens could lead in the elementary school.  This week, we began turning our thoughts into deeds.


Our students divided into three groups: The first group began work on a mural, which will take the form of silhouettes that contain photos of every child in the school doing something to feed the hungry.   A second convened to create a computer game that would become part of the activities in the Family Education center at a special Partners in Mitzvah event.  A third gathered in the Resource Room to design a giant board game that will be used to teach the K-4th grade students about poverty and what can be done to help. The teachers rotated between the groups.


 When I sat down at the giant board game table they were brainstorming about the wording of the “Mitzvah” cards that would be part of their board game (“You did mitzvah x, therefore advance three squares”) You made sandwiches for Pads…, you brought in cans of food for the Sukkot food drive… You helped out at the Ark..  The ideas came rolling in.


  “Where are you getting your ideas?” one student asked the other. 

“Its easy,” came the reply,” I am thinking of things we did for our Mitzvah Corps projects last year.”

 “ Oh, “came the reply,  “ I was thinking about things from the sixth grade retreat!”


This was a moment educators live for.  Enthusiastic students working on a project that will both teach younger students and help people in need, drawing on their own experiences in our school as sources of inspiration.  It is proof that our message is reaching the students.  It is also proof that our lessons are staying with them.  And finally, it is proof that these students have assimilated their learning to such a degree that they can use it to apply in a new situation, and construct a new learning experience for other students.


Earlier, with the same group we had a different kind of moment. Looking for a quote from Jewish sources to put on the mural, the teacher suggested, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” from the Passover Haggadah.  To our dismay, she was met with blank stares by the teens. Not a single one recognized the quote.   But that is OK. The reality is that in a supplementary religious school program, we cannot possibly expect them to learn everything we would like them to know.  There is not enough time in the school year.  In the larger scheme of things, I would rather they understand the connection between Judaism and their responsibility for Tikkun Olam, and fixing the world,  than be able to identify a specific quote.  I would rather they understand their obligation to teach younger children than  be able to quote the Haggadah.  Text study is essential in Jewish education, but it can come later, fueled by enthusiasm like the enthusiasm we witnessed Wednesday night.  They might even remember the quote better, now that they needed to use it in their mural.  Educators call this “constructing knowledge”.


   Nevertheless, I was pleased today when a fifth grade teacher came down to the office to share her experience in her classroom of teaching “Let all who are hungry” to her class, and explaining the importance of the message.  Next week we will study the text in the Haggadah in our eighth and ninth grades ,as part of our ethics curriculum, and  in the fifth and sixth grade will review it as part of their Passover Experience.  Little by little, God willing, the pieces will come together.